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King Oliver 


A Perpetua Book O) 


Copyright Cassell & Co. Ltd., 1960 
Pcrpctua Edition 1961 

A. S. Barnes and Company, Inc. 

11 East 36th Street 
New York 16, New York 

Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 6046826 

AH Rights Reserved 
Printed in the United States of America 















Anyone who writes about King Oliver or, for 
that matter, anyone who listens to the recordings 
he has left us should make constant use of the 
monograph of Walter C. Allen and Brian Rust, 
King Joe Oliver. I am not only indebted to that 
valuable piece of scholarship but to Mr. Allen 
personally for making his collection of Oliver 
records available to me. 

One of the earliest accounts of Joe Oliver was 
the reminiscences of trombonist Preston Jackson 
which appeared in Hot News when Oliver was still 
alive but living in obscurity. Frederick Ramsey 
Jr.'s biographical chapter on him in Jazzmen 
(1939) was one of the earliest pieces of real scholar- 
ship in jazz, and it preserved much information 
before it was too late. 

Finally, I wish especially to thank the musicians 
mentioned in the text whose comments on Oliver's 
style and repertoire outside recording studios 
have been so valuable. 



To a number of the followers of jazz in the United 
States, Great Britain, and France, Joseph 'King* 
Oliver has become as much a kind of culture hero 
as he is a source of aesthetic respect. But unlike 
John Henry's or Stack O'Lee's, Oliver's is not the 
kind of story from which an epic is made although 
Oliver the 4 King* of New Orleans moving in to 
conquer Chicago's south side, delighting a public 
and amazing musicians might promise an epic of 
a sort. The details are not worked out nor the 
emotions refined; Oliver's story is potentially 
tragedy, and it is in an attempt at tragedy that 
it has often been told. 


The story was not taken up by folk balladeers or 
the singers on the 'race 9 lists as were other epics 
and tragedies of jazz, but by the writers and 
documentarians of jazz, specifically in its first 
history, Jazzmen. The pathetic presence of Joseph 
Oliver somehow almost pervades that book and 
at least it served to objectify the special nostalgic, 
somewhat defensive, often sentimental attitudes 
that characterized the approaches of so many of 
the Continental and American writers on jazz of 
the period. An even more sugary version of that 
mythic figure was made the focal point and a 
central character of Hollywood's first attempt at 
the 'movie about the epic of jazz', Syncopation, 
obviously inspired by Jazzmen. 

Oliver's was, then, the medieval tragedy of suc- 
cess fallen on to bitter days by fate. But 'fate' in 
this story was not so unknown a force as it had 
been to Boccaccio. Fate was public caprice, Ameri- 
can 'commercialism', and the boorishness of popu- 
lar taste. Thus Oliver could be praised by these 
writers because he 'set Chicago on its ear' and had 
the public flocking in the early twenties, and then 
he could be revered because an insensitive and 
unaesthetic public had abandoned him. And it 

even refused to respond to him when, some would 
say, he tried to sell out to that public and the 
controllers of its taste, and formed 4 big bands'. 

The Oliver myth fits neatly with the others in 
jazz of the time, like the rather Keats-ian inter- 
pretation of Bix Beiderbecke's life that was al- 
ready prevalent in the thirties and which captured 
the tenor of those times so well for a certain seg- 
ment of boliemia. Jazz, like left-wing politics and 
'the common man 9 was a cause, a special kind of 
emotional (not really either aesthetic or political) 
outlet and here the ageing Oliver could supple- 
ment the artist-cut-off-in-his-youth-by-the-crass- 
world story of Bix. 

Both men in these stories were too perfect and 
too put upon to be real tragic heroes and what we 
got was a crude and sentimental story of the 
fallen hero in which the 'public 9 appeared as both 
the discoverer of artistic talent and the enemy of 
artistic integrity. Both myths survive today, 
chiefly in certain more 'conservative' areas of 
jazz 'criticism' areas where the Oliver character 
could be, and has been, supplanted as the hero of 
the story by Tommy Ladnier, by Joe Smith, by 
'Hot Lips' Page, and currently even by Cootie 


Williams and Roy Eldridge. The myth repeats and 
repeats, the name changes. But in all such accounts 
the realities of the individual, his responsibilities 
to his talent, and the facts of the world in which 
he functions are either ignored or too sentimentally 
presented to be tragic, and such proto-myths must 
die as symptoms of a time which commented with- 
out perception in terms which the realities of 
a living music cannot sustain. 

But Oliver's is indeed a pathetic story. His 
letters, from his last years, published in Jazzmen, 
are among the most moving documents which have 
been preserved from the past in jazz, and the 
nobility in adversity which they show could not 
come from that kind of show-biz delusion which 
was the source of Jelly Roll Morton's bravura. 

I receive your card, you don't know how 
much I appreciate your thinking about the 
old man . . . Thank God I only need one thing 
and that is clothes. I am not making enough 
money to buy clothes as I can't play any more. 
* * * 

Soon as the weather can fit my clothes I 
known I can do better in New York. 


We are still having nice weather here. Th e 
Lord is sure good to me here without an 


* * * 

My heart don't bother me just a little at 
times. But my breath is still short, and I'm 
not at all fat . . . Don't think I will ever raise 
enough money to buy a ticket to New York. 
I am not one to give up quick. If I was I 
don't know where I would be today. I alw ays 
feel like I've got a chance. I still feel I'm 
going to snap out of the rut I've been in for 
several years. What makes me feel optimistic 
at times. Looks like very time one door close 
on me another door opens ... I am going to 
try and save myself a ticket to New York. 

* * * 

I open the pool rooms at 9 a.m. and close 
at 12 midnite. If the money was only a quarter 
as much as the hours I'd be all set. But at that 
I can thank God for what I am getting. 

And one can only report the awesome fortitude 
represented by the entries fiom Paul Barnes's 
1934-35 notebooks which are published in full in 


the Allen-Rust monograph. ('W and 'N' mean 
white or Negro audiences, the figures give each 
man's wages in dollars and cents, and (c) means the 
engagement was cancelled.) Some examples: 


May 9-Williamson, W. Va. N 1.50 
May 10-Norton, Va. (c) 

May 11-Bristol, Tenn./Va. W 0.50 

August 2-Fulton, Ky. N 0.00 

August 4-Clarksville, Tenn. W 1.00 

August 12-Danvffle, Ky. N 0.75 

August 13-Crab Orchard, Ky. W 0.75 

October 28-Greenvffle, S.C. N 0.15 

October 31-Danvifle, Va. N (c) 

November 21-Huntington, W. Va. W 0.00 

or the *Merry Christmas' of: 

December 18-Ashland, Ky. W 2.71 

December 24-Charleston, W. Va. N 0.00 

December 25-Ashland, Ky. W 5.00 

December 26-Welch, W. Va. W 4.00 

December 27-Williamson, W. Va. N 4.00 

And what the table does not show: cars and 

buses broken down, fires which burned instru- 
ments, crooked promoters cheating the band, con- 
stant problems with personnel, competing groups 
using Oliver's name, and all the rest of it. 

And there are things that one can only repeat as 
rumours, rumours which persist even today, like 
the one which has two of Louis Armstrong's side- 
men in a Southern city while on tour seeing an 
old man on a street corner, selling what are called 
'snow balls 9 (crushed ice with flavoured syrup) 
recognizing him as the one-time 'King 9 Joseph 
Oliver and being too overcome to speak to him. 


Joseph Oliver was born in New Orleans 1 in 1885 
in a house on Dryades Street in the 'district'. His 
family moved several times, largely within the 
'Garden district 9 of the city, between that time and 
the day in 1900 when Oliver's mother died in a 
house at Nashville and Coliseum Avenue. It was 
then that Joe Oliver's older sister, Victoria Davis, 
who had nursed him as a baby, began to look after 

1 The main source for subsequent biographies of Oliver Has been Frederic 
Ramsey Jr.'s chapter in Jaatxmen. However, Samuel B. Charter's reference 
volume, Jtux New Orleans 1885-1957, gives a rather different account of 
Oliver's early life. Mr. Charter's facts in several of his entries have been 
questioned by several researchers. Joseph Oliver, according to Charter's account, 
was born on the Saulsburg Plantation, located fifteen miles from Donaldson- 
viHe, Tionimana, where his mother worked as a cook. He came to New Orleans 
as a boy, where he got a job as *yard boy' with a family named Levy. He 
fived with the Levys but spent his week-ends with an aunt in Mandevflle. 
His first instrument was the trombone, but he played it so loud that his 
teacher changed bun to cornet. He was in the Melrose Brass Band by 1907. 


his welfare and it was to her that his last letters 
were addressed in 1938. 

According to Bunk Johnson, Oliver was first 
introduced to music about 1899 hy a Mr. Kenehen 
who formed a brass band among the children in 
his uptown New Orleans neighbourhood with Oliver 
playing on a cornet. (Buddy Bolden, whom most 
New Orleans musicians credit with having started 
it all in jazz, was playing and improvising, mostly 
for dancers, and to great public acclaim, as early 
as 1894.) This youthful band even toured a bit 
locally and once got to Baton Rouge, and it was 
from that trip that Oliver returned with a deep 
scar over his left eye (an earlier accident, it is said 
by some, had left that eye blind since infancy). 

The details of Oliver's musical career in New 
Orleans once he was older and skilled enough to 
get jobs in the regular brass dance bands of the 
city have been variously reported. Indeed, like 
many men in the city, he probably played in 
several groups at the same time, for these men 
were not necessarily 'professional 9 musicians; most 
of them held day jobs and played for parades, 
funerals, and dances as a natural part of a com- 
munity life. Oliver worked as a butler. 


Perhaps more important than the names of the 
bands with which Oliver played are the names of 
some of the men with whom he played in them, 
for they may give us some indication of what kinds 
of music these groups made and what they stood 
for. Thus, the Melrose Brass Band featured trom- 
bonist Home Dutrey, as also did the Magnolia 
Band, the Eagle Band (which was certainly cele- 
brated in the city) had Frank Dusen (only a legend 
to most of us). Then, in and out of the Magnolia 
Band, all reportedly while Oliver was in it, were 
George 'Pops' Foster, bass; Lorenzo Tio Sr., 
clarinet; George Baquet, clarinet; Johnny St. Cyr, 
banjo and guitar. 

Besides such community engagements with the 
brass bands (which also, of course, would play at 
evening dances at the many lodges and clubs in 
the Negro community), there were other kinds of 
jobs. For example, there was a job in the Story- 
ville district at the Abadie Cabaret (at Marais and 
Bienville Streets) with a quartet led by pianist- 
composer Richard M. Jones which included Louis 
Nelson Delisle on clarinet, and Delisle was un- 
doubtedly Jimmy Noone's major inspiration. It was 
during this engagement that Oliver's reputation 

rose, for down the street at Pete Lala's caf<5 played 
the powerful Freddy Keppard, one of the first 
'Kings* of New Orleans trumpeters after Bolden, 
and many thought Oliver was out-playing him. 

Keppard was also the leader of the Olyxnpia Brass 
Band, but probably most significant was his tour 
with the Original Creole orchestra beginning in 
1911, which took the jazz music of New Orleans 
from Coney Island, New York, to Los Angeles, 
California. When he left, A. J. Piron took over the 
Olympia Band and he used Joseph Oliver on cornet. 
The group at Pete Lala's then included Sidney 
Bechet, and, at various times, Zue Robinson on 
trombone, Lorenzo Tio Jr. (teacher of so many 
including Barney Bigard and Omer Simeon) on 
clarinet. Meanwhile, Piron's dance group was 
playing 'society' jobs and featured the leader's 
violin. One might conjecture that Oliver's formal 
knowledge of music grew as he worked for Piron. 
Oliver also toured at this time through Louisiana, 
not entirely successfully, and Clarence Williams 
was a 'comedian' with the troup. 

Williams was later manager of Lala's in 1914, 
when the band, which included clarinettist Johnny 
Dodds and bassist Ed Garland, was led by Kid Ory. 


Ory replaced his trumpeter with Oliver and began 
to bill him in advertising as 4 King% a title which 
public acclaim alone apparently had earlier awarded 
to Bolden and Keppard. There were, of course, 
many changes of personnel in this group (clarinet- 
tists Sidney Bechet, Jimmy Noone, and Albert 
Nicholas were all in and out of it, for example), 
and it was during this time that the touring and 
the closing of the Storyville 'district' (10 Nov- 
ember 1917) all led New Orleans musicians north 
to Chicago and west to Los Angeles. 

Early in 1918, bassist Bill Johnson (who had 
lured Keppard on the tour) sent first for cometist 
Buddy Petit and, when he would not come, for 
Joe Oliver to play an engagement at the Royal 
Gardens Caffi in Chicago; Oliver left New Orleans* 



It is very difficult for us to reconstruct the music 
that Oliver heard and absorbed in New Orleans 
or what its players' intentions were; difficult 
in the sense that there were all sorts of popular 
music played in that city, from the more or less 
formal French and American folk songs and dances 
of the Creoles of Color to the most elementary kind 
of country blues singing and playing of the Negroes 
who had migrated to the city from nearby plant- 
ations ; and some of the very same men may have 
participated in and played all of it. 

Besides the excellent players it nurtured, and 
its style, perhaps the most essential thing that the 
New Orleans music which came to be called 'jazz* 
offered has been described by clarinettist Garvin 
Bushell in an article by Nat Hentoff (The Jazz 


Review, January 1959) as Reeling 9 and what is 
now called 6 souF. Bushell is admittedly speaking 
of what he had heard mostly in the 'twenties, 
but he does not credit New Orleans so much with 
a style (except that the men used four heats 
instead of two), or with making variations (which 
was featured in some performances of ragtime), 
or with improvisation (which is, of course, in 
any blues singing or playing or in any folk 
music anywhere). But Bushell does say that in 
the face of musical and social trends among some 
Negroes, which constantly led them away from 
everything supposedly 'negroid' and into some 
strange but still understandable snobberies, the 
New Orleans musicians preserved and spread a 
transformed, instrumental version of the pas- 
sionate soul of the blues, and they played it 

In New Orleans the music fulfilled the functional 
role which any such music would in any com- 
munity: it was for dances, parades, and atmo- 
sphere in bars, and in all of these it expressed the 
feelings of its audience. It is possible, of course, 
for such communal music to express what its 
audiences would like to think it felt, but one would 

not need verbal confirmation to know that New 
Orleans jazz was too honest an art for that. We 
have often been invited to see this 'jazz' that 
evolved the best exposition of this is probably 
in Alan Lomax's Mister Jelly Roll as a result of 
the coming together of the more or less formal 
'Downtown' musics of the proud 'Creoles of Color' 
and the 'Uptown' blues and church musics (largely 
vocal) of the 'black' Negroes, some of them the 
ex-slaves who had migrated to New Orleans. 
The 'Creoles of Color' were the offspring of 
French (and Spanish) Colonials and of their Negro 
slaves who were sometimes freed and given pro- 
perty and land, and even educated abroad. After the 
Civil War, and as social discrimination and segre- 
gation gradually encroached upon New Orleans, 
their pride tumbled (at least on the surface) 
and they became a part of the larger Negro com- 
munity, and New Orleans instrumental 'jazz' 
music resulted. Probably the best idea available 
to us today of what this combination of formal 
musical knowledge and European dance rhythms, 
and the spirit and rhythms of the blues may have 
sounded like in early days can be heard on some 
of A. J. Piron's recordings made for Columbia. 


Those that he made for Victor show only what 
dullness might have resulted with less of the 6 souT 
of the blues. 

There is, in the recorded work of Bunk Johnson 
(both in his own playing and in his re-creations of 
Buddy Bolden's style), of Freddy Keppard, of 
Jimmy Noone, of Jelly Roll Morton, a remarkable 
common characteristic of style which is undeniable, 
particularly since some New Orleans players 
Louis Armstrong, Johnny Dodds and Sidney 
Bechet, for example do not often show it. The 
approach of Morton and Keppard to variation, 
according to their records, was formal, chorus by 
chorus, and developmental in larger patterns. Each 
variation is based on a single, frequently simple 
idea, which is thematic in point of departure, 
continued throughout each chorus, and related 
both to the preceding and following chorus- 
variation, and (if the player were capable) to 
a total pattern. Armstrong's variations, Bechet's, 
and Dodds's blues are freer, less formal in con- 
ception, and in the style perhaps of younger men. 
In a sense Oliver's playing on records represents, 
as we shall see, both approaches. And, I think 
they both reflect something which can only be 

a conjecture: however much improvisation and 
variation were practised elsewhere in Negro- Ameri- 
can musics, in New Orleans they had been a 
cornerstone of style for a long time, a basic attri- 
bute which musicians worked hard to develop in 
their playing. 



Actually, two jobs awaited Oliver when he arrived 
in Chicago. He played at the Royal Gardens with 
Bill Johnson's group, along with Jimmy Noone 
(who had left New Orleans with him) and drummer 
Paul Barbarin, and he doubled for a while in 
Lawrence Duke's group at the Dreamland Cafe, 
along with Roy Palmer on trombone, Sidney 
Bechet on clarinet, Lil Hardin on piano, Wellman 
Braud on bass, and Minor Hall on drums. Lil 
Hardin described her joining that group: 1 'King 
Oliver and Johnny Dodds came over together 

1 All of my quotations from Lil Hardin Armstrong come from her recent 
autobiographical record, Satchmo and Me, Riverside RLP 12-120 (USA). 
I do not think that the fact that she differs here from the biographical detail 
I am giving need detain us. Johnny Dodds might easily have replaced Noone 
or Bechet in either of the groups Oliver was working with in Chicago at first. 


that night) and so he said to me he came to work at 
the Royal Gardens. And he said he'd be very glad 
if I could come over and work with him. So, 
I told him I had to give two weeks' notice. And it 
was a thrill to me to think that the great King 
wanted me to come and play with him.' 

By January 1920 Oliver was leading a band of 
his own at the Dreamland, and again doubling 
in a State Street cabaret and gangster hang-out 
from one to six in the morning. In this group 
were Johnny Dodds, Home Dutrey (trombone), 
Lil Hardin, Ed Garland and Minor Hall. 

In 1921 Oliver got a letter from the manager 
of the Pergola Dance Pavilion in San Francisco. 
The man had heard Kid Ory's band and wanted 
him. Ory had another contract and told him 
about Oliver. (It was this Ory Band, by the way, 
which made the first jazz recordings by a Negro 
group and give us the earliest idea of New Orleans 
jazz that we have.) 

With various changes of personnel (including 
one which got Johnny Dodds's brother Warren 
'Baby' into it) the Oliver band played in Los 
Angeles, where Oliver also played with a large one 
led by Jelly Roll Morton which featured three 


trumpets and a three-man reed section. Oliver 
later returned to Oakland and soon back to Chi- 
cago, despite an assurance of continued success 
in the Bay Area. 

About the band, Lil Hardin says 'Johnny was 
sober where Baby Dodds was kind of wild 
he was kind of the playboy of the orchestra. 
Bang Oliver was sober too . . . He smoked cigars, 
but he didn't drink. None of them drank hardly. 
And Dutrey, he was a very business sort of a 
fellow. He was always buying property or some- 

Back in Chicago, the billing at the Lincoln 
Gardens (the Royal Gardens re-named) was 'King 
Oliver's Creole Jazz Band 9 and the personnel 
included Home Dutrey (trombone), Johnny Dodds 
(clarinet), Bertha Gonsoulin, later Lil Hardin 
(piano), Bill Johnson (bass), Baby Dodds (drums). 
In the summer of 1922, a young cornetist named 
Louis Armstrong received a telegram in New 
Orleans from King Oliver, who had encouraged 
him years before, to come to Chicago and join 
his band on second cornet a role Oliver had 
played in New Orleans with Manuel Perez, and 
Bunk Johnson had played with Buddy Bolden. 

It was this band which had the most astonishing 
local popularity that Oliver had ever seen, had 
musicians listening in awe, had many travelling 
from elsewhere to hear, and which was, in sessions 
for Gennett, Okeh, Paramount, and Columbia, 
to begin the first regular recordings of jazz music. 

Much has been written about this group, from 
the contemporary write-ups of the Chicago Defender, 
the reminiscent accounts of its popularity and 
power by Preston Jackson, and the accounts by 
George Wettling of how he and other drummers 
would come nightly to study Baby Dodds. But 
Louis Armstrong did not 6 make' this band. Again, 
these are the words of Garvin Bushell to Nat 
Hentoff (The Jazz Review, February 1959): 

6 We went on the road with Mamie Smith in 
1921. When we got to Chicago, Bubber Miley and 
I went to hearing Oliver at the Dreamland every 
night. It was the first time I'd heard New Orleans 
Jazz to any advantage and I studied them every 
night for the entire week we were in town. I was 
very much impressed with their blues and their 
sound. The trumpets and clarinets in the East 
had a better 'legitimate' quality, but their sound 
touched you more. It was less cultivated but more 


impressive of how the people felt. Bubber and 
I sat there with our mouths open. 

*We talked with the Dodds brothers. They felt 
very highly about what they were playing as 
though they knew they were doing something 
new that nobody else could do. I'd say they did 
regard themselves as artists in the sense we use 
the term today . . . 

'Before I went to Dreamland every night, I'd 
heard a New Orleans band that played a lot where 
a carnival was taking place. It was the Thomas 
New Orleans Jug Band, and it was more primi- 
tive than Oliver's ... It had the same beat as 
Oliver's what we called in Ohio the "shimmy" 
beat. They played mostly blues and they played 
four beat, as did Oliver . . . After we'd heard Oliver 
and Dodds, they were our criterion.' 

Here is Lil Hardin's account of the attention 
they were getting at the Lincoln Gardens. 'While 
we were playing at the Royal Gardens, a bunch 
of white musicians, ten, twelve, fifteen, sometimes 
twenty would come, and they would row up right 
in front of the bandstand to listen . . . Louis and 
Joe said they were some of Paul Whiteman's band 
that Six was in the bunch . . . They used to talk 

to Louis and King Oliver and Johnny . . . Several 
of them would sit in occasionally. But they would 
listen so intently . . . 

4 King Oliver . . . said to me one night that Louis 
could play better than he could. He said, "But 
as long as I got him with me, he won't he able 
to get ahead of me. I'll still be king".' 

By the spring of 1923, this band had, with some 
personnel changes, a chance to tour and to record. 
Lil Hardin has described their first of several 

'Then we got the record date ... At the first 
session we were recording in a great big horn 
then, you know the style then. And the band 
was around the horn. And Louis was there, right 
there, as he always was, right next to Joe. It 
didn't work out. You couldn't hear Joe's playing. 
So they moved Louis 'way over in the corner, 
away from the band. Louis was standing over 
there looking so lonesome. He . . . thought it was 
bad for him to have to be away from the band. 
He was looking so sad. And I'd look at him and 
smile you know. That's the only way they 
could get the balance. Louis was, well he was at least 
twelve or fifteen feet from us on the whole session. 9 


Then there were tours the next year on the 
Orpheum Theatre circuit through Ohio, Wis- 
consin, Michigan, even Pennsylvania, but now 
with Zue Robinson, then John Lindsey in for 
Dutrey, Buster Bailey, then Albert Nicholas and 
Rudy Jackson on reeds; Charlie Jackson on bass 
sax, Bud Scott on banjo and 'Snags' Jones on 
drums as replacements in the group. Lil Hardin 
explained it, 4 Johnny Dodds found out that Joe 
had been collecting $95 for each member of the 
band, while he had been paying us $75. So nat- 
urally he had been making $20 a week a piece 
off of us for I don't know how long. So Johnny 
Dodds and Baby Dodds, they threatened to 
beat Joe up. So Joe brought his pistol every 
night to work in his trumpet case in case anything 
happened. Everybody gave in the notice except 
Louis.- Louis always was so crazy about Joe, you 
know he was his idol, so he wouldn't quit. If 
Louis didn't quit, so naturally I wouldn't quit. 
So Lotus and I stayed with Joe. Now that is why 
you don't find Dutrey, Johnny Dodds, and Baby 
Dodds on this Eastern tour with us. He had to 
replace everybody except Louis and myself.' 

In the summer of 1924, Louis Armstrong left 

Oliver, first to play with Ollie Powers at the 
Dreamland for three months and then to New York 
in September to join Fletcher Henderson. Oliver 
had returned to the Lincoln Gardens in June 1924. 
It is often said that the next Oliver hands to 
record, known on records as the 'Dixie Synco- 
pators' or 'Savannah Syncopators' were, in their 
use of a reed section and written arrangements, 
an effort at commercialism. On the other hand, 
reed sections, with saxophones, had been in New 
Orleans groups (and not just the 'legitimate' 
Downtown ones), in the riverboat bands, in the 
Morton bands previously mentioned (and on his 
earliest band records), in many Chicago groups, 
in the 1919 group Oliver had led at a Liberty 
Bond Drive, and in the group Oliver had just 
taken on tour in 1924. It seems very likely that in 
that earlier group on the 1924 tour and in the one 
Oliver now took into the Lincoln Gardens (which 
at first had Buster Bailey on clarinet and alto 
saxophone, Rudy Jackson on tenor saxophone and 
Charlie Jackson on bass saxophone) some basis 
for his future styles (however much these styles 
may have owed to conventional dance bands 
of the time and his own past) was laid. However 


much polyphony was employed and continued to 
be, more conventional, solo and section work must 
have been used before the Syncopators. Indeed, 
it had been all along Oliver's bands; there are 
such harmonized passages as those on the Creole 
Jazz Band's version of Chatanooga Stomp, for 
example. But to call these changes evolutionary 
and inevitable is not to call them improvements, 
of course. 

Business was not good, the personnel changed, 
the band tried to get outside jobs, and in Septem- 
ber 1924, Oliver left the group in charge of Bob 
Shoffner, his second cornet, to go to New York 
to try to get a recording contract. He failed and on 
his return the Gardens was open only three days 
a week. 

By late December, a redecorated Lincoln Gar- 
dens and a re-vamped Oliver band, but with the 
same basic instrumentation, was ready to open. 
In it were Lee Collins, Paul Barbarin, and, fresh 
from New Orleans, Nicholas and Barney Bigard 
on reeds, and Luis Russell. But this group never 
played. On the day it was to open, the Gardens 
caught fire. 

Oliver, with a band and no place to use it, took 

Oliver and Creole Jan Band 1921-Cattfoniia 
U right: Minor Hall, Honor* Dntrey, Oliver, Lil Hardin, David Jonea, Johnny Dodd*, Jinuny PUo, Ed Garbnd 

Oliver*. Dixie Syneopaton 1925 Chicago 

Go. Filho, Bert Cobb, Bud Scott, Paul Barbarin, Darnell Howard, Oliver, Albert Nieholaft, Bob Scbofeer, 
Barney Bigard, Lob RoMeD 

Duncan Schiedt 
Chicago 1923 

Baby Dodds, Honore Dutrey, Oliver, Armstrong, Bill 'Johnson, 
Johnny Dodds, Lil Hardin 

King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band 1924 

Chas Jackson, Clifford 'Snags' Jones, Buster Bailey, King Oliver, 
Zue Robertson, Louis Armstrong, Rudy Jackson, Lil Armstrong 

Duncan Schiedt 

a chair as the 'World's Greatest Jazz Cornetist' 
with Dave Payton's Symphonic Syncopators at 
the Plantation Cafe. There he apparently kept 
his music book stubbornly closed, played his parts 
by ear, and very soon had arranged an engage- 
ment there at the Plantation for his own group 
perhaps his real objective in the first place. That 
job lasted for two years, and saw such men as 
Tommy Ladnier and Kid Ory in a changing 

In March 1926, Oliver got a contract to record 
regularly for the Vocalion 'race' series. The labels 
read 'electrically recorded', and 'King Oliver and 
his Dixie Syncopators'. There were some decided 
'hits' between 1926 and 1928 in this series: Snag It, 
Sugarfoot Stomp (the earlier Dippermouth Blues 
retitled), Someday Sweetheart, Deadman Blues, West 
End Blues, and on such records as these, and not 
earlier ones, Oliver's national public reputation and 
popularity was largely made, of course. 

In March 1927, the Plantation was closed, pos- 
sibly by the police, and just as it was scheduled 
to re-open, a fire destroyed it. Oliver took to the 
road, playing at college dances and brief engage- 
ments in Milwaukee, Detroit, and St. Louis. 


The band was stranded in St. Louis, but by 
May 1927, headlines in the Chicago Defender 
announced the band's arrival in New York with 
'King Oliver made good at Savoy'. 

In 1927, as in every year until the late forties, 
the Savoy Ballroom was a testing ground for any 
Negro orchestra. Oliver was there for two weeks 
and was hardly a failure, although such an en- 
gagement probably does not warrant so blatant 
a claim as the Defender's, 'King Oliver takes 
New York by storm'. The men had arrived by the 
cheapest and slowest trains, just in time to go 
directly on to the bandstand, still tired and dirty 
from a long trip. 

One night engagements in the New York City/ 
New Jersey area followed, and then came what 
turned out to be opportunity knocking. A new 
night club, to be called The Cotton Club, was to 
open and Oliver's band was offered the job of 
providing the house band for dancing, floor shows, 
and, as it turned out, a radio wire which would 
spread the music across the United States. Oliver, 
again proud and stubborn, decided his name and 
his orchestra were worth more money than the 
Club was offering and refused the offer; the job 

went to a young man from Washington D.C. 
named 'Duke' Ellington, who stayed for three 

Oliver played briefly in some major cities in the 
east (Philadelphia, Washington, Baltimore), but 
soon his men had drifted away except for a nucleus 
of three or four musicians. 

For three years, Oliver had no band or, as one 
musician put it, the only band, office, or engage- 
ments he had were in his hat. He did keep his 
recording dates up for Vocalion-Brunswick, to 
be sure, but by the end of 1928 was using Luis 
Russell's band, or Elmer Snowden's as his own 
for recordings, or simply picking up the best men 
he could find. At the same time, Oliver was re- 
cording on his own with various Clarence Williams 

In late 1928, Oliver had, through the efforts of 
agent Harrison Smith, a new recording contract 
(and $1,000 advance) and one that most leaders 
would have envied him for. It was with Victor, 
a large and powerful company then as now. But 
Jimmy O'Keefe at Vocation-Brunswick had largely 
let Oliver have his own way with his own records; 
Victor, he soon learned, was not so liberal towards 


him. Another characteristic of the Victor series 
is that, although there are many trumpet solos 
by Oliver, there are also many by other trumpeters 
and that a great deal of the work in assembling 
and organizing the bands, and much of the com- 
posing and arranging was done by Oliver's nephew 
trumpeter Dave Nelson. 

The Victor contract kept him going, but Oliver 
did get a few jobs in the New York area, and there 
was a tour into the Mid-west in 1930. On it Oliver 
refused to play his Victor repertoire, the group 
was stranded in Kansas City, and Oliver was 
taken ill in Wichita for three months. But he 
had still refused jobs in Chicago and New Orleans 
because he did not like the terms offered. (Louis 
Armstrong and Earl Hines accepted two of those 

By the end of 1930, Oliver was in New York, 
the Victor contract was up, the band had broken 
up, and Dave Nelson left with many arrangements 
which he had made but had not been paid for. 



But the next year Oliver had a new hand, composed 
of younger men, and went off on a tour of the 
South and South-west. One might say that Oliver 
spent the rest of his life making this tour. In the 
beginning it was a comparatively good tour, hut 
soon salaries were being cut and musicians were 

Joseph Oliver had apparently been one of those 
who were 4 born an old man 9 . As some men do, 
he conducted himself as though he were at least 
middle-aged nearly all his life. Pianist Don Kirk- 
patrick has spoken of how he sat almost sullenly 
in front of his band when it opened at the Savoy, 
with soft slippers on his feet, speaking shortly 
and gruffly to his men, and stood only for his 
own solos. But by now he was prematurely ageing 


in more than conduct. He had pyorrhoea, his 
gums bled, and his teeth were coming out 
and if that story about Oliver's keeping a bucket 
of sugar water for the band to drink from at the 
Lincoln Gardens is true, little wonder that they 
did. Therefore, he could play less and less. And he 
had heart trouble and frequent colds. 

It was during this period, this seven-year 6 tour' 
of the South and South-west, confounded by the 
Depression, that the letters and the log book we 
have quoted above were written. Personnel changed, 
cars and buses broke down, engagements were 
broken, jobs were played without pay, and fires 
destroyed equipment. But always Oliver managed 
to keep up a front : a public one that meant keeping 
uniforms neat and clean and a private one that 
he would *get back to New York' or 4 a new door 
would open soon'. But the realities of life included 
the night the bus broke down in the West Vir- 
ginia mountains and, to keep warm, the men had 
to burn the tyres. And the fleeting encouragement 
of a radio wire at one engagement. (The band 
could play it over but their singer, Rudy McDonald, 
couldn't use it; such are the strange ways of 
Jim Crow.) 

By 1935, Oliver could no longer play, but the 
touring, such as it was, continued. In 1936, his 
headquarters were in Savannah. He had not 
enough clothes, he was ill. Again, there was still 
some touring, but in his last year, he ran a fruit 
stand and later worked fifteen hours a day as 
janitor in a pool hall. 

On Friday, 8 April 1938, Joseph 4 King' 
Oliver died of cerebral haemorrhage. His sister 
spent her rent money to have his body brought 
to New York. On 12th April Louis Armstrong, 
Clarence Williams and a loyal group of musician 
friends saw him buried at Woodlawn Cemetery, 
the Bronx, New York. There was no headstone 
on his grave. 




Oliver's is indeed a pathetic story and the 
medieval writer was not wrong in holding that such 
tales of the caprice of fortune have their meaning 
for us all. One could prohahly find many bio- 
graphies that are about as pathetic and exemplary 
as Oliver's, although one might find few men with 
his fortitude and dignity. But the Oliver that 
exists for most of us exists through recordings. 
We are interested in his music; that is what makes 
us interested in his biography and not the other 
way round. And we are interested in his music, 
not so much as an historical or social 'document', 
not only as precedent for what followed it, but 

first because some of it survives today as valid 
and meaningful musical art. And it is a music 
whose emotional content would not brook for 
a moment the nostalgia or the sentimentality with 
which Oliver's story is sometimes told. 

In the recorded history of jazz (all forty odd 
years of it!) there are certain groups of celebrated 
recordings: the Hot Fives-Sevens of Louis Arm- 
strong, the early Jelly Roll Morton Red Hot 
Peppers, the Ellington's of 1938-40, the Basie 
records of 1936-39, the seven 1945 GiUespie-Parker 
records, the twelve Miles Davis Capitols, for 
examples. And one of the first the King Oliver 
Creole Jazz Band records for Gennett, Paramount, 
Okeh, and Columbia. These are celebrated, first, 
for the reason that I have said that the band was 
celebrated : with a certain degree of musical soph- 
istication they preserve and extend the strong and 
unique emotional content of Negro folk music. 
A music, then, which had instrumental and en- 
semble skill (often of a unique sort to be sure) 
and deeply expressive content. But there are de- 
tails which are important : the integration of parts 
and individuals in its dense, often polyphonic, 
textures; the sureness and control in choice of 


tempos; the ease and firmness with which the 
group could project excitement. These men knew 
that one does not artistically imitate or re-create 
an emotion simply by feeling it himself. 

I am going to quote at some length from a recent 
critique by Larry Gushee (in The Jazz Review for 
November 1958) of a group of these recordings 
because it seems to me an excellent account not 
only of what many have felt about them but of 
what they mean to one perceptive listener as well. 
There have been blessed few bands thai 
have ever played together like Joe Oliver's 
... If a band can be said to have a clearly 
recognizable and highly original sound, it must 
consist of something more than the arithmetic 
sum of a certain number of individual styles,, 
I suspect that the sine qua non is discipline; 
which chiefly finds expression as consistency 
and limitation. . . . Begin with a group of 
musicians out of the common run, who are 
guided by some dominant principle or per- 
sonality and the resultant sound will be 
truly unique, pleasing to the ears because it 
is musical, to the soul because it is integral. 
. . . And so these recordings, in their way, ar 

a norm and object lesson of what a jazz band 
needs to be great. . . . 

'Whether the tempos, so often felicitous, 
were Joe Oliver's independent choice, or 
determined by prevailing dance style, I can- 
not know . . . (But) the tempos . . . never 
exceeded the players 9 technical limitations . . . 
I am sure that this accounts for much of the 
superb swing of the Creole band. 

4 But even more important is the manner 
in which the separate beats of the measure 
are accented ... a truly flat four-four. . . . 

6 The truly phenomenal rhythmic momen- 
tum generated by Oliver is just as much 
dependent on continuity of rhythmic pulse 
only reinforced by uniformity of accentuation 
in the rhythm section and relaxed playing^ 
. . . One never feels that, with a little less con- 
trol, a break or an entire chorus would fall 
into musical bizarrerie. Oliver's swing is ex- 
citing after a different fashion: it is predictable, 
positive, and consistent. Only rarely is the 
total manque, as in Froggie Moore, where the 
stop-and-go character of the tune makes 
consistency more difficult. . . . 


'Its consistency is ... largely the result of 
Oliver's personal conception of a band sound. 
How much he moulded the musicians to fit 
the ideal pattern of his own imagination or 
how much he chose them with the knowledge 
that they would fit in ... is something we 
can't determine. . . . We have no record of 
how Louis sounded before he came to Chicago 
we know he is full of the spirit of King Joe 
although their ideas of instrumental tone were 
divergent. Johnny Dodds's rare gift [is] of 
phrasing, his ability to use his clarinet to 
bridge the gap between trumpet phrases . . . 
and to place the final note of his phrase on 
the beginning of a trumpet phrase. . . . 

'The impression of consistence is made all 
the stronger by the refusal of the musicians 
to permit themselves too much freedom. In 
successive choruses of a tune Oliver's side-men 
often play the same part . . . with only slight 
variation notice trombonist Home Dutrey 
in Froggie Moore, especially; Dodds in the same 
tune and in Snake Rag . . . Dutrey . . . often 
plays a pretty strict harmony part, but . . . 
his mannerisms, his agility and grace, are 
strictly his own. . . . 

'A riff produces somewhat the same kind of 
excitement as does Oliver's "consistency" 
stemming ultimately from the irritation born 
of sameness and expectation of change un- 
fulfilled . . . the excitement of riffs, however, 
is bought too cheap . . . most effective in the 
physical presence of a band. The Creole Band's 
way is less obvious, more complex, and, in 
the long run makes a record that remains 
satisfying year after year. 

*. . . The Creole Jazz Band . . . sets the 
standard (possibly, who knows, only because of 
an historical accident) for all kinds of jazz that 
do not base their excellence on individual ex- 
pressiveness, but on form and shape achieved 
through control and balance. 

4 . . . I love this band and its myth, the 
perfection it stands for and almost is, its 
affirmation and integrity, the sombre stride 
of Riverside Blues, the steady roll of Southern 
Stomps, the rock of Canal Street Blues, the 
headlong spirit of Weather Bird Rag. . . . 
This band . . . was one of the very best that 
jazz has ever known.' 


It was indeed a band of integrated self-subor- 
dinated discipline. But it was that, not in the sense 
that Morton, or Ellington, or John Lewis, have 
made groups of fine players produce a music of 
disciplined form. Oliver's was a band of players, 
first of all, but players who happened to be able 
to play together superbly (the several changes of 
personnel on records in 1923 did not affect this 
much either, notice); Oliver's was still 4 a blowing 
group' as the expression now goes. That is why it 
is hard to single out this or that performance as 
especially good. To be sure, one record is better 
than another, one of three versions of Mabel's 
Dream may be better than the others, but we 
could pick out no single masterpiece that seems to 
fulfil most of what this band intended or had to 
offer, as we can say of Morton's Dead Man Blues or 
Kansas City Stomps, or of Ellington's Ko-Ko or Con- 
certo For Cootie. This band achieved its best simply 
by playing together simply by being and doing. 

Nevertheless, one can delight in details: the 
marvellous interplay of Oliver and Armstrong 
(marvellous the first and the fiftieth time) on the 
Paramount Riverside Blues; following Dodds 
throughout Canal Street; noticing the way Lil 

Armstrong and the rhythm instruments, some- 
times led by Dutrey, -will momentarily use syn- 
copated tango rhythms with a wonderful secret 
knowledge about just when to start it and when 
to stop it for perfect effect hear Weather Bird 
Rag and Mandy Lee Blues, or what happens behind 
Oliver's really splendid final choruses on Alligator 

But, despite the fact that it was basically a 
sublimely co-operative blowing group, there are 
effects of arrangement and sequence that show it 
could go beyond that towards form in another 
sense. Performances on records are undoubtedly 
not like those done in person and the cutting down 
of pieces for record length is often very well done, 
especially on multi-thematic compositions. Take 
Froggie Moore: the pacing of themes, the placement 
of Armstrong's solo, however much it owes to 
composer Morton's own scheme, seem perfectly 
balanced for the length of the performance. Or 
take the detail of handling of the trio on Chatanooga 
Stomp: the theme statement comes suddenly in 
harmony between a muted Oliver and Jimmy 
Noone. They play gradually with less perfect 
unity deliberately (or at least in effect) in order 


to prepare for the following polyphonic variation, 
one that seems so excitingly wild but, under the 
surface, is perfectly controlled and sure and at 
this fast tempo. And the way the variation is 
introduced: by the cornet (it's Armstrong or is 
it Oliver?) breaking through at the last note of 
the theme-statement filling in the 'empty 9 bars, 
announcing to the whole band that it is time to 
improvise together for thirty-two bars beginning 
HERE. He hits the note on the first chord of the 
second trio chorus, already joined, it seems, by 
the other cornet who could not wait to begin 
the interplay. 

It is unfortunate and unfair for both men that 
in most accounts of New Orleans jazz that the 
1926-28 records of Morton's Red Hot Peppers and 
those of Oliver's Creole Band are lumped together 
as exponents of 6 New Orleans style'. Morton's 
conception was different in basic respects: more 
formal, sophisticated, learned. Beside Morton's 
masterful integrations of solo, harmonized en- 
sembles, polyphonic interludes (in two, three, or 
four parts), and concepts of total form, Oliver's, 
despite the arranged effects, was the music of a fine 
blues band which played some jazz-style marches 

as well. Morton's music has the form of a director 
leader-composer where in each part is a function 
of a compositionally conceived whole; Oliver's 
the form of improvisers working together wherein 
each man is a function of a group of fine players. 

There are other differences: Morton's rhythmic 
conception is older than Oliver's, closer to ragtime 
(he handled it perfectly and with swing), at the 
same time that his compositional and formal ideas 
were advanced heyond anyone else's in jazz that 
we know of. 

But to make such distinctions is not necessarily 
to give them relative value. Oliver's way (and his 
hand's way) was his own way, the one that led him 
to produce music. An art needs all approaches. 
An art even needs approaches which fail, of course, 
but neither Morton nor Oliver did that. 

Some idea of what a marvellous experience this 
band must have been and a wonderful way for us 
to get 'inside' its music (and also to help our ears 
with the limitations of 1923 recording) comes from 
the fact that the group did some of the same 
pieces more than once on records. If we carefully 
hear and compare the Gennett and Okeh versions 
of Snake Rag, of Dippermouth Blues, of Working- 


man Blues, or the Paramount and Okeh versions 
of Riverside Blues, the quality and size of this 
music hegins to take shape for us. Perhaps the 
most fruitful of all the comparisons we can make 
is among the three versions we are lucky enough 
to have of Mabel's Dream. Because of their like- 
nesses and differences they clarify for us so many of 
the things that the group could do* Because of 
Oliver's part in them, they expand our ideas of 
his abilities. 

Two of them were made successively for Para- 
mount records and both happily got released. 1 
The other was recorded the same month for Okeh. 

Basically Mabel's Dream is a multi-thematic 
rag-like (or march-like) jazz performance, i.e. 
a rag played as if it were a blues. The second 
theme (the first amounts only to an introduction) 
is based on an intriguing little descending phrase 
intermittently completed by ad lib 'breaks' supplied 
in performance by clarinet and trombone. One 
can well imagine the origin of such a phrase in 
a ragtime piece, but the clipped rhythms of rag- 

1 A reliable rumour has it that unreleased alternate 'takes' of Oliver Para- 
mounts exist in 'master* records and will some day be issued. A less reliable 
rumour says the same is true of some of the Gennetts. 


time are not in this performance. The three re- 
cordings treat this section in more or less the 
same way, even to the melodies in breaks them- 
selves except that in the Okeh version the 
orchestral texture is denser, perhaps because the 
tempo is faster* The interesting part for our pur- 
poses comes with the closing theme. 

Basically the two Paramount versions take the 
same approach, a remarkably 'classic' approach, 
one like Morton's. There are three choruses of the 
trio and they make a developing set of related 

Let us say that the lead cornet here is Oliver 
throughout the three; that is the consensus of 
opinion and, as we shall see, the music on the 
Okeh version all but confirms it. The theme has 
melody closely tied to its harmony: it is impossible 
to hum it without the simple underlying chords 
springing into one's head and such themes lend 
themselves easily and readily to the kinds of 
variations jazzmen made in the twenties think 
of the popularity of Wolverine Blues, say, and the 
drastic melodic departure Johnny Dodds is able 
to make from the third strain on Morton's trio 
record of it; or think of the last strain of Froggie 


Moore. Here, the entrance of this selection is 
appropriately a theme-statement by the cornet 
lead. Departures from a strict statement of the 
melodic line are there (and if we don't catch them 
at first a comparison of the two versions will bring 
them out), but they are simple. The second chorus 
is a variation in melody and rhythm, or rather 
melody-rhythm, since it is as clear an indication 
of the relationship of these two in jazz as one 
could ask for. Oliver wants to swing this theme 
now and to do it he has both to reorganize its 
metres and recast its melodic line. The simplest 
device Oliver uses to do this is to accentuate the 
rhythm by note-doublings here and there. But the 
first Paramount version (master #1622-1) shows 
that Oliver has also partly reduced the theme to 
a bare nrriTrinrmm of notes which suggest its outline, 
has taken the 'open' places in the melody (places 
where there are sustained notes or no notes) and 
filled these in with original, very blues-like, melodic 
fragments. One could see this as a distillation of 
the melody plus an obbligato, both played by the 
same man. But it is far more fruitful, because of 
what follows, to see Oliver building a new melodic 
line out of a bare outline of the old. Naturally, 

along with the greater rhythmic emphasis and the 
transformed melody, the feeling in the passage 
is changing, but this is as if to prepare for the 
next variation. One could only call it a melodic- 
emotional variation. Such a coinage is not so 
naive as it may sound. Oliver has now transformed 
the initial theme into an original blues melody, 
and to deliver this final and most drastic departure 
he uses his wa-wa mute; he has re-composed a 
rather naively optimistic military strut into a 
plaintive yet dignified blues. And if one looks even 
more closely, some other details of the way Oliver 
has broken up and redistributed the original 
melody can fascinate. The simple structure of the 
theme is delivered in spurts of two bars, the basic 
melodic motif covers three bars plus a rest of one 
bar. In building a new theme out of this Oliver 
ties units together and puts his bar lines and rests 
at very different places. The often delivered dictum 
that early jazzmen were victims of brief, mechan- 
ical phrasing ignores the wonderful ingenuity 
which they always showed within their idiom 
and, of course, that kind of mastery of one's idioms 
and use of its conventions is the source of art, 
never the conventions themselves. 


In the second Paramount version of Mabel's 
Dream, Oliver uses basically the same pattern on 
this trio section. The theme is first stated with 
a few blues-like interpolations which prepare us 
for what is to come. In the second chorus he 
swings the melody more, simplifies it and departs 
from it further. In the third he builds a new 
melody. The really ingenious thing here is not so 
much that this third chorus (or 'second variation', 
if you will) is different from the one Oliver had 
improvised a few minutes before. (It is different 
and, I am inclined to think, superior.) But it is 
also the almost inevitable result of what Oliver 
had been building all along in this version. If one 
now re-plays tins whole section and compares it 
to the first, one gets some idea of how compre- 
hensive a musical mind Oliver could show. In 
the first take, everything from the slight changes 
and little interpolations in the theme-statement 
and the improvised changes in the first variation 
seem to prepare almost inevitably for just the kind 
of melody Oliver built up in the last chorus. In 
the second take, Oliver ends up with a very differ- 
ent final melody preparing for it beforehand just 
as logically, with different sorts of embellishments 

and departures which lead to it. He was 'thinking' 
three choruses then, making them a continuous 
developing unit, and, apparently within a few 
minutes, making two very different things of the 
same basic material and following the same general 

Jelly Roll Morton did use the same generally 
'classic' plan of variation 6 in sets' but comparing 
Oliver's first two versions of Mabel's Dream shows 
a growing looseness and freedom at least in 
rhythm compared to Morton. Morton undoubt- 
edly went far (and it can be quite far as a com- 
parison of his records of several of his pieces 
will show); Oliver also went far in his way. And 
the point perhaps is that neither tried to go so 
far that he did not retain his own sense of order 
and form. 

Once we have begun to absorb these two takes of 
Mabel's Dream, the Okeh comes as a surprise. 
The tempo is faster, and the group's sure handling 
of this different tempo makes the same composi- 
tion into something different. To put it simply, 
what had been a march transformed into a plain- 
tive blues now becomes a faster march transformed 
into a sprightly and thickly polyphonic dance 


or 'stomp'. The first and second strains, which are 
rather stodgy on the Paramounts, here take on 
more life and Bahy Dodds's liveliness almost 
makes up for brother Johnny's mechanical runs. 
Early in the record Armstrong announces what 
he is up to by flashing through with easy replies 
to the group. 

The trio strain is handled as an improvised 
polyphonic interplay between the two cornets, 
with Oliver in the lead, which gradually increases 
in complexity and density until, at exactly the 
right moment and in precisely the right way, 
Johnny Dodds enters his upper register in the 
last chorus and makes it a three-part interplay. 
The almost immaculate timing and pace involved 
in these three choruses, the subtle discipline in- 
volved in the most spontaneous event, and the 
firm artistic sureness with which the most exciting 
pitch is handled and then topped can make so 
many of the ensemble passages in recorded 'dixie- 
land' seem the strained and noisy nalvetS of 
amateurs. (Would that we had an alternative 
4 take' of this version!) 

We may hear and enjoy a lot of things about 
this group without any such exercise as the fore- 

going, but such comparative listening does help 
us to hear more and to understand more, and once 
having done it, we can never never go back, 
I think; we can never again hear this band without 
a better hearing and broader and deeper delight 
in its art. Then, we not only enter into the dif- 
ferent versions of Riverside Blues but we are 
unlikely ever to be able to play Canal Street Blues 
without discovering something new in it. 



One can discuss many of the merits of the Creole 
Band without discussing its members very much. 
Indeed, one almost has to because, as we say, 
its virtues are the virtues of a whole greater than 
a sum of parts. But, one cannot discuss Oliver's 
subsequent bands and career, nor his effect on 
others, without discussing Oliver's own playing. 
And immediately one encounters an obstacle : Louis 

Armstrong's long-standing insistence that Oliver 
was his stylistic inspiration was strongly re- 
asserted in interviews after the death of Bunk 
Johnson. It was recently strongly confirmed by 
Lil Hardin Armstrong, but she also added that 
although Louis did play like Oliver while with him 

(and, according to Oliver's own admission, better), 
that when Louis left him he played like no one 
had ever heard before. 

Therefore, when Oliver's brilliant accompani- 
ment to 4 Sippie' Wallace on Morning Dove Blues 
seems technically a slightly simpler version of the 
one Louis Armstrong gave Bessie Smith on St. 
Louis Blues a few months earlier, we might reas- 
onably speak of influence, but when very Armstrong- 
like ideas show up on Jet Black Blues (with 'Blind 
Willie Dunn') or when the cornet breaks through 
with such fire on Deep Henderson in the way 
Louis did with Erskine Tate or Perry Bradford, 
we cannot really be sure of who influenced whom. 
Nor can we be sure when, as Maitland Edey points 
out (The Jazz Review, August 1959), Armstrong 
sounds like Oliver on the first chorus of Trixie 
Smith's Railroad Blues. We should remember, 
surely, how many people marvelled at Bunk 
Johnson's choruses on When The Saints Go March" 
ing In; so like Louis, they said. Indeed, they 
were right because, as Bunk privately admitted, 
he had taken a lot of what he played from Louis's 
record of the tune. The basic ideas in Oliver's 
Willie The Weeper (April 1927) variation are the 


same as those in Armstrong's (May 1927). Master 
and pupil? Perhaps, but what had Oliver perhaps 
heard Armstrong do -with that piece in Chicago 
before April 1927? We cannot be sure. 

Inevitably, when one discusses Oliver with 
musicians one of the first points they will make 
is that Oliver was 4 a master of mutes' (that's the 
phrase that is usually used). Trombonist Preston 
Jackson, in that first story on Oliver in Hot News 
put it more tellingly: 'Later on, about 1914, 
I should say, Joe began to improve a lot. He used 
to practise very hard. I remember he once told me 
that it took him ten years to get a tone on his 
instrument. He used a half-cocked mute, and how 
he could make it talk!' His Va-wa's', his piercing 
cries, were not the crude or haphazard attempts 
of a musical semi-literate to play (and to imitate 
the human voice) expressively by bastard and 
essentially non-musical means. They were the 
careful and deliberate personal techniques of a 
sensitive and innovative player-artist. 4 The almost 
unbearable anguish of King Oliver's horn' (as 
John Martin called it) was something he worked 
long and carefully to be able to project. 

Another and perhaps more crucial point Jackson 

made immediately followed: 4 He played the vari- 
ation style too; running chords I mean. His ear 
was wonderful that helped a lot/ and trumpeter 
Louis Metcalfe has said that Oliver first made 
him aware of chord structures and of playing on 

Here, I think we have something crucial, for 
the way in which Oliver 'ran the chords' is im- 
portant. He could have known chords or learned 
them well enough from many Creole-trained musi- 
cians in New Orleans. But in the blues and rag- 
like themes which he recorded, he did not use an 
arpeggio style as Jimmy Noone so often did; 
in none did he simply 'open up' chords hy playing 
the notes in them as they passed. Oliver, as 
Dodds often did, or even Lester Young did, used 
the intervals to write new or variant themes while 
improvising. His imagination was melodic-rhythmic 
in short as is Armstrong's. This may perhaps 
seem a bold technical statement to be making 
of a man who has left few records but simple 
blues of eight, twelve, and sixteen bars and rag- 
march themes of sixteen or double-sixteen bar 
sequences, and whose harmonic sense was hardly 
complex. But on his level, Oliver might have 


stood for a lot of other things; Noone 1 did stand 
for one other and that one could have been 
a defeating one for many players to adopt. Oliver 
did stand for melody in improvising. Since he stood 
for honest emotion as well, he stood for music 
and not technique. And since he stood for a special 
integrated rhythmic content too, he stood for jazz. 

Standing for jazz he stood, in part, for himself 
and, as we shall see, that means that his music 
always had a dimension of dignity and of pride. 

Perhaps it is that which makes our discussion 
of his techniques worth while. 

l Of coarse, Noone's beautiful blues choruses on Ollie Powers's Play That 
Thing is one of several exceptions to my characterization of his work here. 
And as his records with Oliver (Chatanooga Stomp, Neto Orleans Stomp, London 
Blues, and Camp Meeting Blues) show, his knowledge of harmony and his 
Creole-based dance rhythms could make him a uniquely effective ensemble 



The first thing that strikes one about the records 
by The Dixie Syncopators is the unevenness. 

A man who had been so sure of his conception 
and had led a band so sure in its execution, now 
seemed unsure, and results vary widely. The 
second thing one realizes is that on these and sub- 
sequent records, we learn what kind of player and 
soloist Oliver was and what his solos have to tell us. 

The general intention of the Syncopators is 
obvious enough: the Creole band's style much 
modified in part by borrowing a small saxophone 
section from the conventional American dance 
(or even parade) band. 1 

Now at the same time, Fletcher Henderson was 

1 A comparison among several versions of Dippermouth Blues-Sugarfoot 
Stomp helps clarify this relationship (see below). A comparison of the versions 
of Bobbin* Blues by the Creole Band and the Syncopators, however, does not 
although it may he said to clarify the superiority of the former group 
in personnel and conception. 


working on a similar problem: how to transform 
a conventional dance band into a jazz band. 
But Henderson worked from the other direction; 
although on some early records he directly imi- 
tates Oliver's Creole band, Henderson's real career 
begins when he takes a dance band and tries to 
make a jazz band out of it. Oliver, who had a jazz 
band, wanted to keep it that, while he borrowed 
a section from a conventional dance band. 

Curiously, both men failed in similar ways. 
Henderson stuck it out luckily he could until he 
had it finally licked about 1934. Oliver continued 
to fail in certain respects and he again changed 
his approach gradually in the late twenties. But 
for both, there were several individual and ex- 
emplary successes. 

(To continue, for the record, on the formulation 
of 4 big* bands, unlike Henderson's conversion of 
a dance group into a jazz group, Ellington began 
at a different point. For it was not until he had 
a 'show' or 6 pit* band to convert into a jazz or- 
chestra that Ellington began to find his way. 
Benny Moten, profiting by both the work of New 
Orleans men (Oliver, Morton) and by Henderson, 
made a jazz band from a dance band which was 

made, in turn, out of a brass band. Count Basie 
was not the heir to Moten's conception, however, 
Jimmy Lunceford was. Basie, guided by Walter 
Page's Blue Devils and profiting greatly from 
a simplication of Henderson's work, built up a big 
jazz band from the small south-western jump- 
blues group.) 

There are some moments in the earlier Creole 
Jazz Band records which we must simply bear with 
they are the dated things like the chime effects 
on Chimes Blues, the silly slide whistle on Sobbiri* 
Blues i but they are not failures. The Dixie Syn- 
copators' records are full of strange failures: 
rhythmic heaviness and unsureness in percussion 
and horns, poor ensemble playing (poorly intoned 
and poorly unified), passages which do not swing at 
all between passages which do, players who sud- 
denly trip over themselves and lose their way 
rhythmically; solos which swing for four bars, then 
don't swing for six, then do for two, and solo styles 
which flounder badly. 

Certainly jazz was in the midst of a rhythmic 
change with Armstrong now in the lead, and many 
men did not know which way to turn to, old or new 
rhythms. And just as certainly other bands with 


intentions like Oliver's were having similar prob- 
lems with reeds and with unity. But there seems to 
he more involved than that. At any rate, there 
seems to be much more involved when one hears the 
successes in this series. How could there be such 
success, we repeatedly ask ourselves, when, in 
general, this group sometimes seemed to have so 
little firmness of guiding principle or end or even 
awareness of means. 

Some kind of answer may come when we realize 
that several of the more successful recordings hy 
the hand (or hands, actually, since there were many 
personnel changes) were arranged hy alto saxoph- 
onist Billy Paige, who was briefly in the group and 
recorded with it between 11 March and 26 May 
1926. Paige arranged both Too Bad and Snog 
It. In them and in the other recordings which work, 
the rhythmic momentum (if not rhythmic style) of 
the Creole Band is maintained, the sax section is 
used but not (as in the failures) as if it were the 
centre and virtue of things. There is a minimum of 
cluttering 'effects' and the players seem to know 
where they are going from the start of a number. 

Several of the records are well worth discussing in 
some detail and in order. Too Bad is a good arrange- 

ment and performance. Its fast tempo is controlled 
and it is used: the tempo does not use the players. 
The brief theme (by Billy Meyers and Elmer 
Schoebel) saves itself from a harrowing harmonic 
monotony by its rhythmic variety; the marvellous 
Charleston syncopations at its beginnings are, like 
soliloquys or chorus lines which tap-dance, as 
irresistible as they are 'old-fashioned'. Even Barney 
Bigard's slap tongue sax fits the airy generosity of 
the piece and performance. The firm pride with 
which Oliver's horn re-enters at the end gives the 
performance an emotional balance and depth which 
shows the sound intuitions of an artist at work and 
reveals just what kind of artist Oliver was. Not 
a first-rate record, Too Bad does almost set a 
standard for handling tempos in this new style, 
and it does make possible a later Wa Wa Wa. 

Snag It (the first or Vocal' version) is a success 
for similar reasons. It has little waste and a firm 
purpose. It also has variety. It is all very well to 
say that the 'breaks' chorus in this record was 'in- 
fluential' if one doesn't mean only that it shows up 
in the mid 'forties in a Lionel Hampton pseudo- 
boogie woogie record. Perhaps the real point of this 
performance again is Oliver. His playing has a 


passion and a dignity which saves what might 
otherwise have been a mere series of effects ; 
notice, for example, how he completes both the 
break and 'call and response' (riff) choruses in the 
last few bars of each by gradually converting their 
basically tricky raw materials into what are 
really lovely blues melodies. Again, it is a double 
level on which they are working of surface 
'style' and deeper feeling that makes the good 
Syncopators' recordings good, and, again, it is 
largely Oliver's emotional power and his skill at 
using it which gives one of those levels its existence. 
The later version of Snag It (the one without the 
vocal chorus and sometimes issued as Snag It #2) 
is hardly up to this one, and it fails chiefly because 
Oliver does not play well on it. 

Perhaps Deep Henderson reveals something of 
the crisis in the orchestra. Luis Russell has a piano 
chorus on it : rhythmically it is like pseudo-ragtime, 
emotionally it is shallow, melodically it is, like 
several of the arrangements Russell did for the 
group, a series of tricks used to no real end even as 
tricks. 1 Oliver's strong horn pierces through it 

1 1 do not intend these remarks as an estimate either of Russell's talent or 
subsequent career, only of his performance here. 


marvellously and so like the Armstrong of 1923-26. 

Jackass Blues is a fine case in point of Oliver's 
abilities. His solo is very simple and made of a few 
very simple things, yet it is a work of art. Basically, 
what he does is take several of his Dippermouth 
Blues (Sugarfoot Stomp) phrases and piece them to* 
gether in different order. That order is composi- 
tional, it is in this case not a re-statement or para- 
phrase of the theme but the creation of a new one, 
and it is a melodic and emotional whole a new 
essence. Is some of it (perhaps a lot of it) simply 
a use of 'traditional' blues melodies as are many 
blues solos of the period? Does that matter? As it is 
and where it is on this recording, the solo is the state- 
ment of an artist. In a slightly different form or from 
another man it might indeed have been a cliche. 

Sugarfoot was recorded about a month later. 
A comparison between it, Oliver's two earlier ver- 
sions of Dippermouth, and Henderson's early Sugar- 
foot records is the best basis I could have for my 
earlier arguments about the conception of this band 
and that of the 'Creole' group and Henderson's. 
This Syncopators' recording has several fine things 
about it, and some not so fine but interesting things 
as well. Among the latter is the way Albert Nicholas 


begins with his version of Johnny Dodds's choruses 
and then immediately converts himself into his 
real idol, Jimmy Noone. Both fine and interesting 
is Kid Ory's way of making a 'bass' instrument (for 
such it is in earlier polyphonic styles) into a solo 
horn by using blues ideas several trumpeters 
(including Armstrong hear Gut Bucket Blues) were 
playing at the time. Towards the end, Ory 'calls 9 
the^group to riff pattern 'responses' and the figures 
Ory plays are in the basic pattern for almost all 
trombone section writing in orchestral jazz until 
the 'forties. Oliver on this record is weak, shaky 
in ideas and execution and sounding as though he 
is 'faking' notes by forcing breath and embrochure. 
When Oliver is weak like this, and he became so 
increasingly but with recoveries, there is a pathos 
in his playing that draws us to him, but we had 
better be clear that this is not an aesthetic response, 
but a personal one. We are only pulling for the man; 
we do not respond to what the artist can reveal. 

So many of the successful things on the earlier 
records that work seem to prepare for Wa Wa JFa; 
indeed, it all but perfects what Too Bad conceived. 
And Oliver's own role in it begins where Deep 
Henderson leaves trim and fulfils what that record 

implies. It is probably the best record the Syncop- 
ators made a fact which is all the more striking 
when one remembers how decidedly unique and 
nearly sublime Oliver himself can be on slow blues 
for Wa Wa Wa is a fast stomp. Walter Allen has 
remarked on the variety of muted and wa-wa 
playing here. The momentum of Oliver's rhythm 
throughout is given the most telling kind of confirm- 
ation in the way that Nicholas loses swing in his 
break but Oliver and Bob Schoffner do not at all. 
Certainly there are cliches here, even cliches of 
awkwardness like the sax section work and there is 
a clarinet trio. But nothing en route could stand in 
the way of the purposeful power of Wa Wa Wa 
a kind of savage energy sublimated and transmuted 
by conscious craft into a fearless joy of living. 
(Could the man who made this record have made 
the corny Farewell Blues a year later? He did.) 

Again, one cannot be sure about the influence of 
such playing on Armstrong, but one should say 
that each man made something rather different 
out of the general approach. But one is more than 
tempted to declare that such rhythmic drive as 
Oliver shows here had its repercussions everywhere. 
Of such a thing as the striking, behind-the-beat 


coda on Tack Annie, so like Armstrong's style, and 
also the one Bunk Johnson showed in the 'forties, 
one cannot say, except that it is there. 

Someday Sweetheart and Dead Man Blues were 
public successes, Oliver's best-sellers. (They were 
coupled on opposite sides of the same release and 
of course Morton gave it out that Dead Man 
caused the sales.) The former was arranged by Luis 
Russell and is, in performance at least, a com- 
bination of schmaltz and the kind of honesty that 
gives schmaltz the lie. Again, Russell's rhythmic 
conception is raggy: Oliver could carry such 
rhythms (understood them as well as his own 
newer ones) without sounding corny and super- 
ficial but Bert Cobb's statement of the theme on 
tuba (for all its outre sound today) seems shallow. 
Oliver plays the verse of the piece with the rhyth- 
mic ease at shifting accents and making delays of 
a near-innovator, an ease that no one else here was 
up to, not even Johnny Dodds. Dodds does 'save' 
the performance, however, by a beautifully honest 
(though hardly humourless) response to Barney 
Bigard. Bigard's theme statement is corn and not 
in the modish sense he is not so much old fashioned 
as he is false in emotion and affected in manner. 

Dodd's clarinet manages both honesty and bravura 
at once, in a way that only he (and perhaps Verdi) 
knew about, in his re-statement of the theme. 
The melody itself is ideally suited for such an irony, 
for if one does not take a jazzman's advantage of 
the way its rhythmic accents fall (as Dodds does), 
its melodic contours could lead him into the worst 

Jelly Roll Morton's Victor record of the same 
piece (complete with violins that are both heavy 
and lush) is just that kind of mawkishness. But 
with his own Dead Man's Blues, Morton made one 
of his three or four orchestral masterpieces, and one 
which could have shown both Oliver and Hender- 
son most of what there is to know about how to get 
reed sections to play with unity and swing. But 
Oliver's record was the hit. It doesn't survive; it is 
fast enough to be downright coy, whereas Morton 
managed sadness, optimisim, wit, and depth all 
in one three-minute complex unit of both device 
and feeling. Oliver leaves us with only a fairly 
academic appreciation of Bob Schoffner's behind- 
the-beat solo. 

One can only feel of Willie The Weeper that its 
effort at variety in arrangement is simply affected 


and misguided (Morton was often more complex 
in fact, far less so in effect) and only draws atten- 
tion to itself and that there are poor solos. If Oliver 
was not imitating the outline of the solo Armstrong 
was to record a few days later, then Oliver must 
have been imitating himself, and not very well. 
By the time one gets to blues Speakeasy and 
Aunt floger's, things are clearly running out for 
the Dixie Syncopators. The personnel has changed 
over and over, the conception of the scores is 
floundering and confused, and the emotional di- 
mension that almost any Oliver solo might give 
almost any record is not present, for Oliver does 
not solo. One cannot he sure what these arrange- 
ments intend: the earlier Syncopators idea of a 
modified New Orleans group, the idea of a small 
ensemble playing scored themes and effects around 
a string of solos (like the Clarence Williams records 
of the time), or of a big 6 pre-swing 9 band conception 
that was beginning to emerge in Harlem and that 
Oliver was soon to flirt with. Only a reed riff on 
Speakeasy survives. Ed Anderson is the trumpet 
soloist on both. One can only say that he does very 
well at elaborating a style like Oliver's, one that the 
most advanced younger men had already aban- 

doned for another style (i.e. Armstrong's) which 
Oliver's had already inspired* 

But before those two records were made there are 
a succession of three other more or less slow blues, 
Black Snake Blues, Tin Roof Blues, and West End 
Blues, and they show the band's range of failure 
and success. 

Black Snake uses Omer Simeon (he took up 
soprano saxophone just for the arrangement) to 
advantage, but hardly to the near-brilliance that 
Morton did it is quite possible that Simeon was 
always a better ensemble improviser than soloist. 
Ory manages again to be both witty and deeply 
serious. Oliver's opening is sure and the slightest 
technical shakiness of his final chorus is fully over- 
come by his dignity and force. Black Snake is one 
Luis Russell arrangement for the Syncopators that 
does manage variety without clutter, but it is 
variety of a rather pointless sort, a variety of 
several good effects within a score, but with such 
little attention to over-all pattern. If the total effect 
of such writing is good, it is almost an accident. 

I do not know why Frederick Ramsey Jr. insisted 
in Jazzmen that Tin Roof Blues was taken from 
Oliver's Jazziri* Babies Blues. It was not, although 


George Brunis did use a fairly commonplace bass- 
tuba theme that is on the Jazziri* Babies record 
as the basis of his solo. At any rate, Oliver's 1928 
Tin Roof is hardly distinguished except for Oliver's 
very lovely solo at the end of it. 

One cannot say, however, that the original Oliver 
record of West End is undistinguished or even 
careless: it is simply bad. It is incongruously bad; 
one hardly knows how it was intended or how to 
take it. Oliver obviously made it up with care of 
two distinguished blues themes, the second of them 
harmonically lovely and quite provocative for an 
improviser. Oliver opens the record with a rhyth- 
mic archaic chorus for some reason. When we then 
hear Ernest Elliot's confused burlesque of a clarinet 
solo (it is made up of blues cliches and Ted Lewis- 
like whinneys), we hardly know what to think. And 
when Oliver's ending is so beautiful, so proud, and 
so honest, the listener's confusion is confounded. 

I have hinted at, spoken of, and even pointed to 
certain obvious rhythmic crises in the Syncopators' 
records on which I shall now try to take a stand. 
There is far too much of the kind of rhythmic mo- 
mentum cum suspense which we call 'swing' in, say 
Jelly Roll Morton's records, for me to take the 

position that swing must be based on an even 'four 5 
time sense, but clearly there is a rhythmic difference 
between, say, Morton and Armstrong (or for that 
matter, between Morton and Bessie Smith). Oliver 
could swing in a rhythmic mode based either on 
a modified 2/4 rather like Morton's, or a mode 
based on an even 4/4 like Armstrong's indeed he 
may have adopted the latter from certain kinds of 
'low' blues playing and passed it on to Armstrong. 
I believe he did. Oliver swings for example in both 
parts of Tin Roof, in all of Wa Wa Wa, or Too Bad. 
Nicholas uses the more ragtimy 2/4 rhythmic con- 
ception on Wa Wa Wa but there does not swing. 
Morton did not always swing; neither did Oliver, but 
the question is not merely that of an underlying 
2/4 or 4/4 time sense. Furthermore, a man may 
keep perfect time and not swing (example: Charlie 
Shavers) and he may swing beautifully and have 
imperfect time (example: Jo Jones). 

One further point about the Syncopators de- 
serves attention. There is an assumption in many 
circles that jazz has gradually achieved a rhythmic 
lightness over its fifty years. As a generalization it 
is valid enough, I suppose, but in detail it is hardly 
true. The Creole Jazz Band, despite a preponder- 


ance of rhythm instruments and an overlapping of 
their functions (one example bass, trombone, and 
piano bass-line) had a rhythmic lightness, sureness, 
spring, and ease, that one does not often hear either 
in the rhythm section or in the horns of the Syn- 
copators. And the rhythmic lightness that Morton 
achieved on certain Red Hot Pepper records has 
all the aspects of a controlled miracle. But the 
Syncopators, like so many early medium and large 
groups which used arrangements, had a usually 
heavy and sluggish rhythm section which affected 
most of the horns. That it seldom affected Oliver 
himself is a sign of the size of Oliver's talent in 
jazz. But one other aspect of that rhythm is even 
more striking. Its lack of flow is so much more 
evident where it shouldn't have been by all reas- 
onable expectations: on slow and medium blues, 
and it is less evident where it might have given 
trouble: on fast numbers. Too Bad and Wa Wa Wa 
can dance with such relatively rhythmic movement 
and dash, yet slow blues like Black Snafee, say, 
in a tempo which gives even the untutored 6 folk' 
musician no rhythmic trouble at all, often have 
a dull, heavy and unmoving pulse thumping away 
in them. 


It is often said of Oliver's 1929-30 Victor recordings 
that in effect many of them were made by the 
Victor bosses rather than Joe Oliver. This is un- 
doubtedly true of such things as Everybody Does 
It In Hawaii with Roy Schmeck's guitar, but the 
majority of the numbers on them were written by 
Oliver and/ or Dave Nelson, and by Paul Barbarin 
or Luis Russell, and were scored by Nelson. 

Perhaps the first thing that one notices is the 
polish of the groups. The reeds play better, with 
more unity and better intonation, the rhythm 
sections are usually firmer and more integrated with 
the groups, the full ensembles are more unified. 
But, except for those times when Oliver had the 
nucleus of a working group (which would include 
trombonist Jimmy Archey), these records were 
made by groups assembled for the dates or working 


bands of other leaders borrowed in part or whole by 
Oliver for records. Obviously, these men were 
musicians with standards of professionalism, but 
one must admit that the soloist sometimes does not 
meet the standards of feeling which some of Oliver's 
earlier side-men, for all their bungling, had set. And 
there are many of the same problems with swing in 
the solos, except that now the soloists will have 
their own rhythms set and maintained and those 
rhythms will either swing or not swing. There is 
little tripping or faltering within choruses as with 
some of the Syncopators' soloists. 

Perhaps more important than any of this is 
a change in conception that soon becomes evident. 
It is hard to say how much pressures from the 
Victor company to get records which would sell 
well influenced things or how much Oliver might 
have been affected in some ways by the same 
desires but one can say that on the whole these 
records have more devices of scoring and approach 
which are dated than his others. The Syncopators 9 
failures may be failures of execution not of score. 
The same sort of dated scoring mars some of 
Jelly Roll Morton's records of the period, but that 
would not be said of his earlier records nor of 

most of Oliver's. Henderson and Ellington might 
have failed in these same years, but most of the 
time their conception seems to have been on the 
right track. Oliver's often was not. For example it 
is difficult to understand what a melange of devices 
like I Can't Stop Loving You intends, unless Oliver 
was convinced (or had been convinced) that for 
popularity one should do what others did and not 
what one did best. At any rate, it was several years 
before Don Redman and Jimmy Lunceford, in their 
different ways, perfected the kind of thing that 
I Want You Just Myself attempts, and to do it 
each of them had to bring about considerable 
transmutation into jazz of the 6 dance band' devices 
he employed. 

Even more important is further evidence already 
hinted at above, that Oliver was gradually changing 
his basic approach. He usually kept his instrument- 
ation the same: two or three brass, two or three 
reeds, and rhythm. But less and less did his approach 
sound like a modified New Orleans ensemble with 
reeds for clarinet; more and more did it sound 
like a cut-down version of the New York 'big band' 
of the period. 1 And as we have said, it was a band 

1 One might object that the musicians available could play no other style, 
except that most of them have before or since. 


in which the worst elements of style of the 6 hoteP 
dance hand of the time were used directly without 
their being really transformed or assimilated into 
the jazz idiom. 

Also, one must remark on Oliver's own playing 
and especially since the Victor contract began 
with three record dates on which Oliver did not 
play at all and on the first of which Louis Metcalf 
did an imitation of Louis Armstrong's innovative 
recording of Oliver's earlier composition West End 
Blues. In 1929 and 1930, King Oliver might follow 
a recording on which he did not play with one on 
which he played very well, and follow that with 
one on which he falters technically and seems to 
he forcing himself badly. That is about the best 
that one can make of the difficult tangle of Oliver's 
cornet and trumpet solos in these years. 1 He could 
follow dates with no solos or simple, quiet ones by 
taking those really bravura solos on Too Late and 

1 Almost any musician will say of Oliver that, until he finally had to stop 
playing the cornet, he would play less and less frequently, but that when he 
did solo, he could play well. Lester Young, who may have been with him as 
late as 1933, has said so, and Keg Purnell says his lip was still good in 1935. 
On the other hand, his lip may sound very bad on some of the 1929 records 
and sound excellent a few days later on another record date. Any horn player 
has bad days, of course, but Oliver seems to have had extremes. (The switch 
from cornet to trumpet came about 1930.) 


New Orleans Shout for himself. But it is that kind 
of pride that he was made of. 

Sweet Like This is one of the most celebrated of 
the Victor series and it deserves to he. It has no 
startling improvisation and it has a bit of rather 
bad writing and playing for the reeds (behind the 
first trumpet solo), but has two charming themes 
and it seems to know what it intends to say without 
the waste motion of many of these records. The 
themes themselves again show that art is a matter 
of how one handles one's conventions no matter 
what those conventions are. For the themes are 
again the blues, one twelve- and one sixteen-bar 
blues, and Nelson and Oliver have fashioned two 
themes of touching, almost nostalgic, lyricism on 
these cliche patterns, and themes which also com- 
plement each other excellently. (I believe, inci- 
dentally, that it is Oliver who plays the first solo 
on open trumpet the theme statement and 
Nelson who plays the simple muted variation 
although Allen, Rust, and Hughes Panassie have it 
the other way around.) 

Too Late, the next side from the same date, is 
also a good one and an even better arrangement 
in the reed- work. Actually, it again returns to the 


sixteen-bar blues for still another use, for its 
thirty-two-bar theme is the kind made of what 
amounts to splicing two sixteen-bar sequences to- 
gether. Its ending, with probably Oliver playing solo 
in his fast stomp style over excitingly executed riffs 
figures, is one of the best things in the Victor series. 
The other record from this date is what is surely 
one of Oliver's loveliest later pieces, What Do You 
Want Me To Do, and it has Oliver's lovely obbligato 
to a theme-statement by tuba, but it is another of 
those arrangements in which the effort of the times 
to use the whining 'sweet' 'hotel-band' saxophone 
style 1 in a jazz setting does not work as jazz. The 
truth may be, as I say, that in 1929 nobody really 
knew what to do with three reeds in a jazz band 
or that those who did, did not always do what was 
best. Certainly, Oliver was alone neither in the 
attempt nor in the failure, but unlike the others, 
Oliver had a style before 1925 that was maturely 
a jazz style but one, alas, out of fashion. Hen- 
derson, Redmond, and Ellington were working to 
transform such things into the language of jazz. 

1 The style may well be at least in part an effort at an 'adaptation 9 by 'hotel 
bands' of the jazz clarinet style of the 'teens and early 'twenties but, then, 
so is Ted Lewis's clarinet style. We can hear it put to quite different use in 
what Lester Young made of Frankie Trumbauer. 


Oliver, at forty-four, his major work (whether he 
knew it or not) probably already done, was stuck 
with them and (again, whether he knew it or not) 
with the times. 

But not always, because for every You're Just 
My Type there are very successful records like 
Luis Russell's composition Call of the Freaks, Met- 
calfe's Trumpets Prayer, Stingaree Blues (with 
Oliver's memorable solo), Mule Face Blues, Boogie 
Woogie, 1 or Nelson Stomp. In composition, in 
scoring, and in performance these records take the 
best road available, the one that everyone would 
be on in about six years, and take it decisively and 
well. They are exceptional performances* And some 
like Shake It and Break It could even catch at 
least a bit of the joyous side of the stomps of an 
earlier time. 

For some of the others, one can only hear and 
report; report that after the magnificent swing of 
the opening of Olga, it is abandoned for another 
kind of rhythm, a melange of effects and mostly 
stodgy solos; or report that on Rhythm Club 

1 An unusual piece for Oliver, by the way, since it is in the thirty-two bar 
AABA, Tin Pan Alley form with B as a 'bridge* or 'release'. The piece has 
nothing to do with the kind of percussive blues piano which shares its name. 


Stomp, 1 Charlie Holmes's clarinet solo (as usual) 
and the fine closing ensemble generate more swing 
than anything else which happens; or report that 
one Frankie and Johnny could (despite the burden 
of Roy Schmeck and an harmonica) create and 
sustain a good, almost barrel-house beat, while the 
stodgy one made fifteen days later has little to offer 
but Holmes again and Oliver's lead in the last chorus* 
Oliver's Victor recordings are usually either dis- 
missed or spoken of as the flounderings of an 
almost helpless 'old man'. But of about thirty- 
eight titles, at least ten are very successful record- 
ings for their whole length and several others have 
fine moments. For some of the failures Oliver must 
ultimately take the blame, but when we remember 
that most of the records were made by 'pick up' 
bands, that for some of them he had 'commercial' 
gimmicks forced on him, that jazz was in a state 
of rhythmic and stylistic flux, and, above all, 
that Oliver was working with a comparatively new 
conception of orchestral jazz with which even his 
younger colleagues were having daily trouble and 
failure, ten such very good records made in 1929- 
1930 would represent real achievement for anyone. 

1 A tune by the way which perhaps should have got Oliver and Nelson 
royalties from Old Man Mose in the thirties. 



The Victor recordings represent Oliver's last re- 
corded work chronologically except for a brief 
return to Brunswick for three dates, the third a 
pseudonymous one. Meanwhile, Oliver had worked 
as a blues accompanist and as a side-man on re- 
cordings since 1924. Many of these enlighten us 
about Oliver's style. On some of them he played 
very good solos, and two of them I think are, 
in some ways, among his best recorded work. 

Oliver as an accompanist again presents us with 
contradictions like those we have often come across 
in this survey of his records : he will do something 
brilliantly on one occasion and seem hardly able to do 
the same thing more than competently on another; 
or, he will take one approach successfully on one oc- 
casion but take an entirely different one on another. 

On the four Sarah Martin records that have been 


reissued, Death Sting Me Blues, Mistreatin* Man 
Blues, Mean, Tight Mama, and the double entendre 
'patter' song Kitchen Man, Oliver does not play 
simple 'replies* at the ends of her lines as would 
many others at the time. He often enters behind 
and under the singer's lines to begin his phrases, 
completing them as 'responses' at the ends of her 
lines. The effect, of course, is different: that of a 
continuous interplay and, finally, of an integrated 
balance between voice and instrument into an 
entity. But Oliver's playing here, largely muted and 
usually wa-wa, is often a matter of almost cautious 
plaintive sounds. Only occasionally does a phrase 
have a fuller melodic content and line, but those 
that do are lovely. That is also the approach 
Oliver took on his first accompaniments, to the 
vaudeville team of Butterbeans and Susie on 
Construction Gang and Kiss Me Sweet. Besides an 
introduction and an interlude of rather simple varia- 
tion-on-theme by Oliver, there is some very full 
and here more melodic playing behind the singers. 
Oliver's masterpiece of blues accompaniment, 
and one which can stand comparison with the best 
work of Armstrong or Joe Smith, is surely the 
Morning Dove Blues with Sippie Wallace. In the 

first place, Sippie Wallace was, unlike Sarah 
Martin, a real blues singer with an expressive, even 
commanding voice. The blues itself is a very good 
one, even if the rest of it is not quite up to the 
poetry of its first stanza: 

Early in the morning, I rise like 
a mourning dove. 

Early in the morning, I rise like 
a mourning dove. 

Moaning and singing about the man 

I love. 

The performance builds excellently. Oliver uses all 
approaches as part of a developing structure. He 
plays an introduction and, at first, replies and 
fills at the ends of the singer's lines. Each time, he 
comes up with a real musical idea, an appropriate 
one, and it is always expressively played. Gradu- 
ally as the interplay between the two increases, 
Oliver's melodies will not only respond to her 
previous line but lead her beautifully into her next* 
Then, again gradually, he begins to accompany 
her lines beginning his phrases behind her, playing 
them in response to her, completing them by 
calling for her next line. In this single performance, 
Oliver has worked out the very delicate artistic 
problem of how a singer and accompaniment can 


balance and mutually contribute to a performance 
without competing with each other. And he has 
done it without the effect of an exercise, but of 
a finished work of art. If there is anything that 
challenges the unicjue pace and evolving tension 
one hears on Morning Dove, it might be the way 
Sippie Wallace raises her voice in the final stanza 
of Every Dog Has His Day, a kind of paradoxical 
triumph-and-pain in one, as Oliver continues behind. 
All of these recordings show, I think, how the 
vocal-instrumental blues was dealing with the very 
difficult problem of balancing poetry, singer, and 
instrument. There is always a clash among the 
three in any coming together they may have: the 
opera librettist knows he cannot make his lines too 
good or they draw too much attention to themselves 
as poetry. And the operatic composer knows he has 
got to balance his singers and his instrument so 
that one does not overshadow the others. And the 
so-called 'country blues' singer knows that he had 
best keep his guitar simple and appropriately 
functional for he is primarily a poet. If that kind of 
balancing of the arts of poetry-song-instruments 
has ever been better handled in jazz it is surely 
only on the best of the Joe Smith and Louis Arm- 

strong accompaniments. The interplay of Lester 
Young and Billie Holiday in the mid 'thirties 
might sometimes surpass it in some ways, but 
there is no question of any 'poetry' in A Sailboat 
In The Moonlight (And You), so the problem has 
changed. And today for a Mahalia Jackson, the 
problem is even simpler. She is primarily a singer 
and both the verses and the accompaniment take 
second place to her voice and delivery. The most 
advanced blues artists of the 'twenties writers, 
singers, instrumentalists obviously solved a subtle 
artistic problem for themselves that few have even 
dealt with since and which perhaps only German 
lieder solved before it. And George Thomas's 
Morning Dove Blues as performed by Sippie Wallace 
and Joseph Oliver is a classic, and almost self- 
explicating, example of what they achieved. 

I do not think that many of Oliver's recordings 
with Clarence Williams's sometimes stodgy groups 
are successful that is, that many of his solos on 
those records are the best Oliver. I do not say this 
of all his solos on them, and even the poorest of 
them give us some idea of how he played and all 
such ideas are valuable. 

Oliver has one at the end of Bimbo (I'm Gonna 


Take My Bimbo Back to Bamboo Isle) in which he 
has some delightful rhythmic and metric displace- 
ments. To put this performance beside the two 
versions of Speakeasy Blues, the one by Oliver's 
Syncopators with Oliver's solo and the one by 
Clarence Williams's Orchestra with a solo by Ed 
Anderson is instructive. Anderson plays the theme 
on Speakeasy with a great deal more freedom with 
the rhythm and metre than Oliver does but the 
origin of what Anderson does can clearly be seen, 
I think, in such things as Oliver's solo on Bimbo. 

Also there may be a more plaintive feeling in 
Oliver's playing of What You Want Me To Do with 
Williams's 'Novelty Four', than there is on his own 
Victor record of that piece, but there is nothing on 
the Williams version to match the agility of Oliver's 
obbligato to Clinton Walker's tuba on his own. 

However, there is one record with Oliver as 
a side-man which, I think, is in some ways among 
his best. It is the curious Jet Black Blues by 'Blind 
Willie Dunn and his Gin Bottle Four', apparently 
with Oliver 1 , Eddie Lang and Lonnie Johnson, 
with, perhaps, Hoagy Carmichael. 

1 Oliver's presence on this record has been doubted. I am convinced that it 
is he, but even if it were not, the playing represents much of what he stood 
for, I think. 


Oliver, as usual, presents us here with a contra- 
diction. The playing, withal, does show straining 
and some faltering in technique. The record opens 
with Lonnie Johnson playing, with his usual 
feeling, a simple eight-bar blues theme rather like 
the classic one, How Long, as Eddie Lang answers 
him. Then with Lang in the lead, Johnson plays 
rhythm and there is that strangely appropriate 
pitched 'bell' sound entering behind. Now begins 
Oliver's part of the record : in effect four choruses, 
in two groups of two, each built on a variation of 
the theme that Johnson and Lang had introduced. 
Basically, Oliver's variant theme is made of 
eight notes, some of them at effective (albeit 
simple) intervals from those in the Johnson-Lang 
theme. In each of his first two choruses Oliver 
ties these notes together with interweaving runs. 
The runs themselves are virtually the same in 
each of the choruses; the interesting thing is that 
they make a climax, getting gradually more com- 
plex as each chorus proceeds. After a rather stilted 
piano solo and a 'scat' vocal chorus which just 
misses banality and which he quietly accompanies, 
Oliver re-enters for his second pair of choruses. 
He begins with a direct three-note reference to 


his previous solo and then proceeds to build these 
two choruses as a variation of those earlier two. 
The germ idea hefore had been an ascending phrase; 
here it is a descending one. Here the higher notes 
give it both tension and, gradually, an optimism 
missing before. His fourth and last chorus swings 
the melody of his third; the optimism becomes 
almost a joy which dances now with the doublets 
and triplets and, as a climax, an Armstrong-like 
eighth note skipping around with the time and the 
rhythm at its end. 

He said something almost like this I think: 
'This is my music, the music I stand for. I am 
proud of it; I give it to you.' 

So brief an account as this does not need a 
summary, I think. But Oliver's story does call for 
some kind of a conclusion: It is quite reasonable 
to contend that without Joseph Oliver, the feeling 
and form of his music and the techniques he found 
to express them, jazz could not have happened as 
we know it. But perhaps without the pride, the 
dignity, the fortitude, the hope, and finally the 
joy he gave it, it might not have continued as jazz 
at all. 




Riverside RLP12-122 contains Chimes Blues, Just 
Gone, Canal Street Blues, Mandy Lee Blues, 
Weather Bird Rag, Dipper Mouth Blues, Froggie 
Moore, Snake Rag, Mabel's Dream, Southern 
Stomps, Riverside Blues (Gennett). 

Riverside RLP12-101 includes Alligator Hop, 
Krooked Blues, Tm Going Away To Wear You 
Off My Mind (Gennett) . 

Epic LN-3208 contains Snake Rag 9 MabeFs Dream, 
Room Rent Blues, Dippermouth Blues, I Ain't 
Gonna Tell Nobody, Working Man Blues, High 
Society, Sweet Baby Do//, Bobbin 9 Blues, My 
Sweet Lovin 9 Man (Okeh), London Cafe Blues, 
Camp Meeting Blues (Columbia). 


Brunswick BL-58020 (now deleted) contains Black 
Snake Blues, Willie the Weeper, Aunt Hagar 9 s 
Blues, Speakeasy Blues, Sugar Foot Stomp, Snag 
It No. 2 9 Someday Sweetheart, Too Bad. 

Brunswick BL-58026 (now deleted) included Snag 

Camden CAL-383 includes Freakish Light Blues in- 


correctly labelled New Orleans Shout. Other 
tracks by different artists. 

"X" LVA3018 (now deleted) contained West End 
Blues, I've Got That Thing, Freakish Light Blues 
(takes 3 and 4), Can I Tell You, My Good Man 
Sam, Siveet Like This, New Orleans Shout. 


Riverside RLP12-130 contains King Porter Stomp, 
Tom Cat Blues (duets with Jelly Roll Morton), 
Mistreatin 9 Man Blues, Mean Tight Mama 9 Death 
Sting Me, Hole In The Wall, Kitchen Man, Don't 
Turn If our Back On Me (accompaniments to 
blues singer Sara Martin as member of Clarence 
Williams Group), Squeeze Me, Long Deep And 
Wide, New Doivn Home Rag (with Clarence Wil- 
liams Group no solos). 

Riverside RLP1033 (now deleted) by Clarence Wil- 
liams has Oliver solos 011 Bozo, Bimbo and Speak- 
easy Blues. 

Note: Deleted items are 10" LPs. All other records listed are 12" LPs.